To start things off at BP South Side, we are reviewing the offseason moves of White Sox GM Rick Hahn in a staff-wide series. Here, Ethan Spalding reviews the catching platoon of Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro.
When Tyler Flowers was acquired from the Braves for Javier Vazquez in December of 2008, it was immediately assumed he was the heir apparent to A.J. Pierzynski. Flowers was ranked as the 72nd best prospect in baseball before 2010 by Kevin Goldstein, who said at the time “Flowers has the kind of offensive skills rarely found in a catcher, with plus power and an excellent approach at the plate.”
Despite the glowing praise, that offensive upside never materialized for Flowers in Chicago. In 431 games over parts of seven seasons (the last three of which saw Flowers in a starting role), Flowers put up a .223/.289/.376 slash line, good for a well-below average .237 TAv. Even in a league where good offensive catchers are scarce, Flowers’ production with the bat simply wasn’t enough, and the White Sox declined to tender him a contract and instead signed a likely platoon of Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila to one-year deals for a total of $6.5 million.
This move undoubtedly was done with plans to improve the team’s offense. While Navarro and Avila are unlikely to hit like they did at their peaks (each have posted a season of at least .300 TAv, though Navarro only did so in part time duty with the Cubs in 2010), platooning them should provide an offensive boost. Indeed, PECOTA projects a .259 and .256 TAv for Avila and Navarro, respectively, versus a projected .242 TAv for Flowers with the Braves.
While these moves make sense from an offensive standpoint, both new White Sox catchers represent quite a massive downgrade from Flowers in the receiving department. While none of the three are good blockers (and Flowers was actually the worst pitch blocker in baseball in 2015), Flowers has made a name for himself over the last couple years as one of the better pitch framers in baseball, culminating in a 2015 season where he was the third-most valuable pitch framer in baseball. Avila and Navarro, on the other hand, both were negative framers, with Avila posting the second-worst CSAA in baseball among catchers who received at least 1,000 pitches.
Is sacrificing framing value to this degree worth the offensive upgrade? According to PECOTA, it is not. Flowers is projected to post a higher WARP than either Navarro or Avila in 2016. So did the White Sox actually get worse with these moves?
Maybe. If we can assume that framing is a relatively static skill and can be mostly predicted by past performance, they certainly did. Navarro and Avila should be serviceable as an offensive platoon, but Flowers was just too good behind the plate to let go like this. But what if it’s not a static skill? In the last two seasons, year-to-year correlation of individual framing performance has absolutely deteriorated. Catchers are not as good a bet to maintain their framing advantage (or disadvantage) from the previous season. This could be for a number of reasons, many of which could be connected to the growing awareness of the value of framing. If teams recently found out how valuable framing is, it would stand to reason they would encourage their catchers to work on the framing, which could very possibly lead to leaderboards looking very different year-to-year.
It’s quite interesting to note here that Flowers himself talked up how much he worked on his framing and subsequently shot up the league leaderboards. This was very unlikely something that he did without involvement by the White Sox, suggesting they weren’t simply unaware of the difference between his framing ability and that of his replacements. So maybe — and this is certainly a very big maybe — the White Sox are confident in their ability to teach and improve their catchers’ framing abilities? If this were the case, it would certainly make the move to Avila and Navarro much more palatable. Flowers’ bat was poor enough that it really hurt the White Sox to have him in the lineup every day, and if the gap in his framing value to his replacements could be trimmed down even a bit, replacing him would be an upgrade.
Or, maybe, the White Sox do not see the same value in framing and simply wanted a somewhat cheap offensive upgrade. In this case, the negative effect on White Sox pitchers may end up costing them dearly.